Six years after U.S Supreme Court’s disastrous Citizens United decision, voters across the political spectrum are tired of a system that prioritizes big donors over everyday voters and are ready for bold solutions. Simply put: The debate about the problem of money in politics is over.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell thinks otherwise. McConnell last week unleashed a blizzard of misinformation aimed at knocking down an effort to help voters learn more about who is buying influence in government, specifically when our tax dollars are used in the contracting process.
As The New York Times and The Washington Post recently reported, President Obama is seriously considering an executive order requiring federal contractors to disclose their political spending. This would be an important step toward making good on everyone’s right to know who is trying to influence elections and who is paying for the attack ads polluting our politics.
In today’s anything-goes political environment, large corporations and special-interest groups may donate as much as they please to nonprofit organizations that spend the money to help elect candidates the donors like and defeat those they oppose. Thanks to the tax laws governing nonprofit groups, the donations are hidden from public view, but the donors make sure their identities are shared with the candidates and officeholders involved.
The executive order that Obama is considering would lift the curtain on these secret political donations. The list of companies that have contracts with the federal government and so face a potential disclosure requirement include such major corporations as Walmart, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, General Motors, Google, Pfizer, and Citigroup.
This disclosure measure has true bipartisan support. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling found that 66 percent of 2016 Republican primary voters and 78 percent of 2016 Democratic primary voters think the president should issue this executive order. Even Republican presidential candidates, including Ben Carson, Rand Paul, and Mike Huckabee, have endorsed policy ideas to increase disclosure of or ban federal contractor lobbying and election spending. All three remaining Democratic presidential candidates—Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley—support the executive order.
Despite this bipartisan support for illuminating the secret money in our elections, McConnell has suggested the executive order would let Obama create an “enemies list” of contractors. He also charges that it would violate a ban on such a disclosure requirement that Congress tucked into a must-pass spending bill last year.
McConnell’s argument is nonsense and he knows it. The provisions he refers to do not stop the president from issuing the executive order. They provide only that political spending disclosure cannot be a requirement during the bidding or contracting process for federal contractors.
The truth is McConnell opposes any meaningful campaign-finance reform. In fact, the main reason Obama is considering this executive order is because the McConnell-led Senate Republicans filibustered the DISCLOSE Act in 2010 and McConnell has used his leadership position to block political transparency legislation from moving in Congress ever since.
McConnell is not the only one trying to block this common-sense measure. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which serves as a conduit for political spending by many large corporations, has also come out against the executive order.
Not surprisingly, McConnell is one of the largest recipients of secret money in politics; his 2014 campaign received more than $12 million from groups that do not disclose their donors. Also not surprisingly, the chamber is one the largest spenders of secret money in elections, spending more than $107 million on federal elections since Citizens United.
Obama shouldn’t let misinformation stop him from doing what he knows is right. By issuing the executive order, he will align himself with more than two dozen states that have enacted political disclosure rules in response to the Citizens United decision, and more than one million people who’ve signed petitions calling on the president to act.
It’s time for the president to fulfill his promise to deliver “a better politics.” By itself, the executive order on political disclosure won’t restore balance to our democracy. But it is part of a larger set of solutions focused on fixing our campaign-finance system, protecting every American’s right to vote, and ensuring voters are represented in fairly drawn districts. Time is running short, Mr. President; don’t let Senator McConnell run out the clock.
Miles Rapoport serves on the board of The American Prospect and is President of Common Cause.